Review: “Compulsion”

SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Next Theatre Company, Noyse Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston
When: Through Nov. 17
Tickets: $30-$40
Phone: 847-475-1875 ext. 2

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Some people are so aggressive, so adversarial and so driven to be their own worst enemy that it’s hard to have much sympathy for them. Such is the case with Sid Silver, the protagonist of Rinne Groff’s “Compulsion,” whose determination to see his play based on Anne Frank’s diary prevail over a more “stageworthy” version becomes an obsession. He’s a very difficult man with whom to spend two hours, at least as portrayed by Mick Webber in Next Theatre Company’s 33rd season opener.

Based on Chicago-bred Jewish-American Meyer Levin, probably best-known for his novel “Compulsion” about the Leopold and Loeb murder case, Silver starts out wanting Americans to be exposed to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” because he sees its young author not only as a moving writer but also as representative of all Holocaust victims. The diary, published in English in 1952 with his review and an introduction by Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly finds a wide audience. With authorization from Anne’s father, Otto Frank, Silver pens a stage adaptation that’s accepted for a Broadway production — but then rejected by producer Cheryl Crawford in favor of one by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

Groff’s drama details how Silver’s sense of injury escalates into what he perceives as a quest for justice, as he pursues lawsuits and other avenues of redress, in the process alienating publishers, lawyers and everyone else with whom he comes in contact, as well as becoming more and more paranoid and almost destroying his marriage and family. Even after he agrees to relinquish his claim and moves to Israel, he relents, convinces a friend to present his play one night, and jeopardizes a whole youth program with a letter to the New York Times. 

As directed by Devon de Mayo, many of the scenes, especially in the first act, are basically procedural as an increasingly frustrated and fiery Silver argues his position. One of Groff’s main dramatic devices is that all the other characters are played by two actors. Jenny Avery is everyone from Mrs. Silver to the publishing house’s rising associate, Ms. Mermin, while John Byrnes takes on various publishing execs, lawyers and an Israeli officer. The doubling has obvious practical advantages, but it doesn’t work quite as well from an artistic standpoint. In particular, I think it would be better to have Ms. Mermin and Silver’s long-suffering and incredibly patient wife played by different people.

The playwright’s other gimmick is that Silver is haunted by — and talks to — large marionettes of Anne Frank, her friend Peter and her father. Designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock, these puppets have vague features and, though an interesting concept, aren’t nearly as expressive as they could be.

As for Webber, he clearly conveys Silver’s rage, irritability, irrationality and readiness to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice, but what we don’t see are any redeeming qualities that would provide a reason to care. Although he — and director de Mayo — regard him as fighting for justice and refusing to give up, I had trouble assessing how much of an injustice he suffered. 

My guess is that theatrical producers regularly decide to switch adapters, and Groff gives no indication of whether or not Silver’s play was better — or more suitable for Broadway — than the alternative chosen. His contention that it represented the diary and the Jewish people more accurately remains unproven. In addition, once he lashed out without regard for the innocent, his righteous anger seemed to morph into sheer vanity.

So, if you’re interested in Meyer Levin or intrigued by spending an evening with his thoroughly unpleasant stand-in, by all means go see “Compulsion.” If not, don’t bother.